1965: a war with no winners

Fifty years since the War of 1965, India needs to introspect in a clear-headed manner on the lessons learnt. Unlike the Wars in 1962 and 1971, 1965 was an indecisive one. It changed neither the status of the Kashmir dispute nor that of the relationship between the estranged neighbours

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:35 pm IST

Published - September 19, 2015 01:14 am IST

Fifty years after the event, the Indian government has decided to celebrate the India-Pakistan War of 1965. ‘Celebrating a war,’ which is never less than tragic, and is at best a last alternative when a state finds other avenues of peaceful existence impossible, is a paradoxical choice of phrase for marking history. As battles are the building blocks of war, historically wars are milestones in a nation’s journey. They offer a viewpoint from where one can assess the journey made and those yet to be undertaken in the life of a nation and its people.

V. R. Raghavan

In search of lasting peace

The 1965 War is better viewed as a milestone in India’s strategic journey in search of lasting peace. Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military theorist of the 18th century, in his advice to his monarch, had emphasised that while war must be waged to gain a state’s ends, the ultimate purpose of war is peace and not victory. The 1965 War neither brought victory to Pakistan, which initiated the War in the Rann of Kutch and later in Jammu and Kashmir, nor peace to India, which fought back tenaciously after being surprised.

A ‘commemoration of war,’ a far-better word than ‘celebration,’ is a moment for reflection. It offers an opportunity to be grateful for the sacrifices of those who died fighting for the nation’s values of secularism and democracy. It is also a moment to take stock of where India was then and is now on the global stage. There are meaningful lessons in such introspection which requires neither vainglorious jingoism nor a reiteration of Pakistan as the enemy, a position it has sadly failed to grow out of. Pakistan’s military government of the time could not think beyond a military solution. Its leadership assessed that it was a moment of Indian weakness after its military defeat by China in 1962 and the demise of the iconic Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1964. It assessed that its U.S.-lent weapons systems were enough to defeat the Indian armed forces.

Worse still, the misplaced assumptions of the capacity of the Indian armed forces to fight back ferociously hastened the Pakistani military decision to take to war. It was a military choice made without reckoning with the likely international political response.

India’s military debacle against China was a reality. It did not fight a war in 1962. A war involves an overall plan, a strategy and employment of forces to work that strategy. India threw troops pell-mell into operations, and fought a series of unconnected battalion-level battles. The Chinese fought as brigades and divisions which bypassed most Indian defences to reach deep into our territory. These were uncoordinated battalion-sized battles in which the ill-equipped and ill-supplied Indian troops were worsted. Pakistan wrongly saw opportunities in the political uncertainties of the period, with a new leadership under Lal Bahadur Shastri having recently taken charge. The Defence Ministry was under Y.B. Chavan, a seasoned former Chief Minister of Maharashtra. The armed forces had begun a command restructuring, force expansion and doctrinal shift process which had given its rank and file new confidence. Indian commanders were new to handling brigade and division-sized forces in battles.

Indian commanders thus far had experience as battalion commanders in 1948 in Jammu and Kashmir and in 1962. As a result, mistakes were made and losses incurred, which were offset by the gains made by determined combat actions by the Army and the Air Force. The gallantry awards of the War speak volumes for such work.

The Defence Minister, Mr. Chavan, had developed a fine working relationship with the three armed forces Chiefs and his Prime Minister. Mr. Shastri trusted his Defence Minister completely and allowed him to take critical decisions as the War developed. One needs to read Mr. Chavan’s personal diaries of the time to understand the way the government functioned and the manner in which he coordinated the work with the three service chiefs. He makes telling observations on the strengths and constraints of the Army, Navy and Air Force Chiefs of the time.

The diaries bring out Mr. Chavan and the three Chiefs in a positive light, which could not be said of the egotistical military command in Pakistan. There were outstanding acts of individual gallantry and military panache during the War. Muhammad Ayub, the namesake of Pakistan’s military leader, won a Vir Chakra. Major Ranjit Dyal made an intrepid dash against all odds to capture the Haji Pir Pass. There were heroes like the Keelor brothers, Denzil Keelor and Trevor Keelor, and others, who used their old and outgunned aircraft to bring down the famed U.S. made Sabres. Outmoded tanks of the Indian armoured division halted Pakistan’s Patton tank-led offensive at what later became known as a graveyard of tanks.

The 1965 War welded the Indian defence forces into a cohesive military machine. It threw up a new military leadership from the crucible of war which, six years later, led the Army in the 1971 War. It also made the Indian political leadership more mature in understanding the reality of the new world, in which major powers would intervene to end a war inconvenient to them.

The time dimension and strategic policy preferences of future wars became apparent in 1965. The Arab-Israeli War of 1967 and the management of its outcome by the Soviet-U.S. leadership was not lost on the Indian leadership. The role of technology and modern armament systems in the outcome of wars was carefully observed and built into military doctrines. Above all, the imperative of joint warfare in which the Army, the Navy and the Air Force operated to a cohesive plan towards common objectives became a key ingredient of war plans. It was a deeply-imbibed lesson that valour and heroism alone do not win wars against superior weapons and organisation, a lesson which had been witnessed throughout Indian history. In an ironic way, China in 1962 and Pakistan in 1965 both contributed to the coming of age of India’s politico-military thinking.

Strategy for 1971

The seductive attraction of a military solution to political problems continued to beguile the Pakistani military elite. Six years after the 1965 War, despite massive political developments in the country, a new military leader in Pakistan preferred to exercise the military option in 1971 in what was then East Pakistan. The Indian response was based on its 1965 experience. India quickly ensured the strategic imperative by a Treaty with the Soviet Union and prepared for a military conflict to create conditions in East Bengal for the return of ten million refugees who had poured into India. Pakistan predictably initiated the War in western theatre.

The 1971 War became a game changer in strategic and geopolitical terms and reconfigured the power balance in South Asia. It is sad that the attraction of a military option still prevails in Rawalpindi, as was seen in recently Siachen and Kargil. It acts as a continuing backdrop to relations between the two countries. The backdrop is made more complex by the presence of nuclear weapons and the continued use of terrorism in Pakistan. While these have not held back India from its growth into a better economy and as a stability provider, they have created substantial socio-economic and strategic dilemmas for Pakistan.

The three wars of 1962 with China and 1965 and 1971 with Pakistan are better viewed through the perspective of a strategic continuum. Each of these wars had its share of valour but also of tragic loss of lives of its men and officers. Wars are more than the sum of the battles, valour and sacrifice.

Wars define the nations which start it, as also those which fight to defend national values. An important lesson from this perspective is of outcomes from these wars, or from any war. The 1971 War was a decisive one. It led to the creation of a new nation, for a people who wanted to constitute one. The War of 1962 has left the legacy of an unsettled and disputed border, which is prone to frequent military confrontation. There is little prospect in the foreseeable future of a final settlement.

The War of 1965 has had no decisive outcome either in Jammu and Kashmir or in the overall relations between the two countries. In fact, there has been no decisive war after 1971, despite massive military power used by major powers in different parts of the world. The after-effects of human migrations and the rise of armed groups threatening global security have been the legacy of indecisive wars. Armies can win wars but the gaining of peace is a different thing altogether. It is something to ponder over, as we commemorate the 1965 War.

(Lt. Gen. (retd.) V.R. Raghavan is a military strategic thinker who served in the Indian Army for 37 years.)

*This article has been edited for a factual error.

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